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Joanne D. Smith-Hileman v. Michael J. Astrue

August 11, 2011

JOANNE D. SMITH-HILEMAN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: VICTOR B. Kenton United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Social Security Case

This matter is before the Court for review of the decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff's application for disability benefits. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §636(c), the parties have consented that the case may be handled by the Magistrate Judge. The action arises under 42 U.S.C. §405(g), which authorizes the Court to enter judgment upon the pleadings and transcript of the Administrative Record ("AR") before the Commissioner. The parties have filed the Joint Stipulation ("JS"), and the Commissioner has filed the certified AR.

Plaintiff raises the following issues:

1. Whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") impermissibly rejected Plaintiff's subjective complaints. (JS at 5.)

This Memorandum Opinion will constitute the Court's findings of fact and conclusions of law. After reviewing the matter, the Court concludes that for the reasons set forth, the decision of the Commissioner must be reversed and the matter remanded.

I

THE CASE WILL BE REMANDED FOR FURTHER HEARING TO REEVALUATE PLAINTIFF'S SUBJECTIVE COMPLAINTS

Plaintiff raises a single issue of error in the ALJ's decision: whether the ALJ impermissibly rejected her subjective complaints. (JS at 5.) For the reasons to be set forth, the Court agrees, and will remand for further hearing.

At the administrative hearing (AR 514-566), Plaintiff provided substantial testimony about her pain. This testimony is well summarized in her portion of the JS (see, Id. at 6-8.) She testified as to neck pain; pain in her temples; the top of her head, and shoulders, down to the fingertips; her legs; headaches which have become progressively more intense over the years; neck pain; hand problems, and what she called "grey outs." She also testified as to burning sensations in her legs, and as to her depression.

As the ALJ correctly noted, "a claimant's symptoms can sometimes suggest a greater level of severity of impairment than can be shown by the objective medical evidence alone." (AR at 403, citing 20 C.F.R. 416.929(c).) The ALJ also noted the factors which must be evaluated in the credibility determination, as set forth in Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-7p. Finally, as the parties note, the analysis of credibility is conducted in two steps. First, it must be determined whether there is an underlying medically determinable physical or mental impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the individual's pain or other symptoms. If so, then the Commissioner is charged with evaluating the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of those symptoms. (See Bunnell v. Sullivan 947 F.2d 341, 345 (9th Cir. 1991)(en banc).

The ALJ depreciated Plaintiff's description of her subjective pain, and set forth a list of reasons. The Court's task is to determine if the reasons cited in the decision are supported by the record, and are sufficiently specific and legitimate to undermine Plaintiff's credibility.

Although not numbered in the decision, the Court notes the following factors cited in the ALJ's decision in the section devoted to credibility:

1. A history of intermittent depression associated with a decline in Plaintiff's physical health and her ...


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